By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

Like a fine wine that just gets better with age and tender-loving-care, Coyote StageWorks of Palm Springs found its groove too.  But an explanation is in order. Ten years ago, Coyote co-founders Chuck Yates, Alan Denny, Larry Raben, David Engle, and Michael Solomon brought their talents as actors, producers, and directors, from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, with an eye toward remaining permanently in our desert paradise.

This gifted quintet of professionals approached Arch Brown, then owner of Thorny Theatre, in Palm Springs (now defunct) to ask if he was interested in renting the Thorny Theatre to them, as a way of introducing to Valley residents, the professional theatrical skills of Coyote StageWorks.  He did and the rest, as they say, would become history.  Over the last ten years, Coyote StageWorks has gone on to rack up 77 Desert Theatre League Awards (DTL) for excellence in their productions.

The play they selected to produce was a hoot of a comedy about a tiny radio station – probably a 500-watt signal that just reaches out the window sill – to the 1500 listeners of a tiny, fictional community in East Texas called Tuna. That would be the extent of its outlet reach and probably doesn’t travel much beyond their city limits, but that doesn’t faze our intrepid radio co-hosts. Thurston Wheelis (Alan Denny) and Arlis Struvie (Chuck Yates), the two guys chit-chat about the local residents who buy the ads and talk to the listeners who call into their local daily radio show. And they also read the local and national news too.

“Greater Tuna,” set in the fictional city of Tuna, (“the third smallest city in Texas”)  is a series of comedy vignettes punctuated by lightning-quick costume changes that make up the meat of this excellently produced comedy by David Youse and Chuck Yates and staged by DTL award-winning director Larry Raben.  The highest compliment a theatre critic can bestow to a seamlessly directed play is to say the hand of the director was nowhere in evidence.  One can only imagine; however, the blood, sweat, and tears taking place backstage that gives the appearance of the production as one that flows smoothly to the audience.  That’s why it’s called ‘stage magic.’

“Greater Tuna”, written by co-authors Ed Howard, Joe Sears, and Jaston Williams hit the jackpot back 1982 when they created the outrageous, oddball, and the kookiest cast of characters that looked and sounded like your crazy uncle (who usually slept in the attic on a cot) or Bertha Bumiller community busy-body, and nosy lady who knows everyone’s business and shares it with anyone who will listen which, of course, in Tuna, everyone does exactly that.

Spoofs and satires are blisteringly funny to most, except those that see themselves as objects of ridicule. The fun aspect of this terrific production is in recognizing the characters as people we have loved or known in the past and have accepted their flaws, yet we as an audience, are still able to embrace them and their biases because they cannot see or find fault in their own lives. The fictional characters of Tuna, Texas are intentionally exaggerated and over-the-top, but, by gosh, it sure does make for one hilarious evening of theatre. Those twangy Texas accents also lend another dimension to the performances of all nineteen characters. And, where do they come up with the names of the people who live in Tuna? They’re downright Dickensian — more about the two incredible actors who perform these nineteen characters later.

Coyote StageWorks performed just one production at the tiny Thorny Theatre – “Greater Tuna.”  For the next three years, the group became sort of a gypsy-like traveling theatrical company.  Productions of “A Tuna Christmas” and “Fully Committed” thrilled audiences at The Palm Springs Woman’s Club. The group presented their final ‘roadshow’ production “Buyer & Cellar,” at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, in Rancho Mirage.

Their performing home for the last seven years has been the Annenberg Theater, located inside the Palm Springs Art Museum.  The group’s Artistic Director Chuck Yates, felt it was fitting to celebrate the group’s first decade of professional quality theatre in the Valley, by presenting a revival production of “Greater Tuna”, with the same two actors and director who created the roles in the first Palm Springs production:  Chuck Yates and Alan Denny, and Larry Raben.

Time has been kind to these two fine actors. I reviewed the very first production in the Thorny Theatre, and I immediately knew this professional Equity and Sag/AFTRA theatre group were keepers.  However, I did wonder how these two seasoned actors would fare ten years later in the roles they originated.  Not only did they acquit themselves in “Greater Tuna” one, they exceeded and enriched their acting chops and performances in “Greater Tuna” two, now performing at the Annenberg Theater venue in Palm Springs.

The division of labor in this terrific production boils down to 10 characters for Mr. Yates, and nine roles for Mr. Denny. Both men portray female characters, but you wouldn’t know it from the audience; well, yes, one might, but it’s always a delight to watch two pros do their thing.  Mr. Denny is perfect as Bertha Bumiller in how she handles her annoying children as well as her friends.  And Mr. Yates never disappoints in any of the wide-ranging roles he tackles. His performance as Truman Capote in the biographical play “TRU,” is still talked about in the Valley.

The creative, technical team led by director Larry Raben includes a slick functioning set by Designer Josh Clabaugh; Supplemental Costumes by Jim Lapidus and Supplemental Costumes/Wardrobe/Master Frank Cazares, complete the creative team.  The production is Stage Managed by Diane L. David.

“Greater Tuna” performs at the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs and runs through March 31, 2019.  It’s a Must See production!

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